Amanda Ripley

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Crowd Crush at the Hajj

25th Sep 2015 posted in Disaster Behavior

Photo: Victims of a crowd crush in Mina in 2006. (Muhammed Muheisen/AP)

It's been nine years since the last major crowd crush at the hajj. I wrote about that tragedy in The Unthinkable as a case study in so-called "panic." 

Naively, I was hoping we would not see another mass-casualty disaster like this at the hajj. In the past decade, the Saudis have invested heavily in crowd-management systems and dramatically improved the safety of this very challenging event. But here we are. At least 717 people have been killed, and the New York Times front-page headline today cites "unexplained panic" as the cause. 

That is a reckless use of language. People have a tendency to assume that crowd crushes are caused by savage misbehavior of others. But we don't know yet what caused this tragedy, and it is certainly too early to impugn the victims, accusing them of panicking--or of disobeying directions, as the Saudi health minister has now done. "If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided," Khaled al-Falih told El-Ekhbariya television. 

Flashback to 2006, when the last major crowd crush happened at the Hajj, killing 364 pilgrims. Here is what a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesperson said then: "Some of the pilgrims were undisciplined and hasty to finish the ritual as soon as possoble." 

In 1990, after the deadliest recorded crowd crush in hajj history, Saudi King Fahd called the catastrophe "God's will." Of the 1,426 victims he said, "Had they not died there, they would have died elsewhere."

In fact, the vast majority of crowd crushes, which have occured at big-box stores, soccer stadiums and nightclubs all over the world, are caused by the laws of physics: too many people moving through too small a space too quickly. Almost all are preventable with better crowd management and crowd communication.

Panic is a reaction to a crowd crush, and a perfectly understandable one. It's not the cause. Ironically, crowds at the hajj are better behaved than the drunken hooligans and bargain-shoppers you might encounter in other high-volume crowds. The pilgrims have come to participate in a harmonious, holy ritual, so they tend to act like it.

In most crowd crushes, people die when someone in the front  of a crowd trips or otherwise falls down, and the people in the back, unaware of the problem, keep pushing slowly forward. If you don't have about a square yard of space around you, it is very hard to recover from the normal jostling of a crowd. So more people fall. As the pressure builds up, shock waves begin to pulse through the crowd, and people lose control over their movement. 

Most people killed in these tragedies die from asphyxiation, not from being trampled upon by others. The pressure of the crowd builds exponentially, making it impossible to breathe. The compounded force of five people can kill a person. 

Pressure is the primary horror of a crowd crush. Not panic. And until we accept that, we will keep having more of them. Because blaming the crowd lifts the onus of responsibility off the officials tasked with managing the crowd and puts it on the backs of the dead.